Fast Company

Google's Marissa Mayer Assaults Designers With Data

The irony was not lost on anyone in attendance at AIGA's national conference in Memphis last weekend. Marissa Mayer, "keeper" of the Google homepage since 1998, walked into a room filled with over 1,200 mostly graphic designers to talk about how well design worked at the design-dismissive Google. She even had the charts and graphs of user-tested research to prove it, she said. Designers shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

marissa mayer

In an almost robotic delivery, Mayer acknowledged that design was never the primary concern when developing the site. When she mentioned to founder Sergey Brin that he might want to do something to spiff up the brand-new homepage for users, his response was almost poetically eloquent: "I don't do HTML."

Currently they do employ designers at Google. But if they actually do design or not is up for debate since every decision at Google comes from data testing, not the reasoning of a creative mind. About the now-notorious claim that she once tested 41 shades of blue? All true. Turns out Google was using two different colors of blue, one on the homepage, one on the Gmail page. To find out which was more effective so they could standardize it across the system, they tested an imperceptible range of blues between the two. The winning color, according to dozens of charts and graphs, was not too green, not too red. "It's interesting to see how you can change the way that people respond to the Web in ways that are not intuitive," she said. But intuition is exactly what you hire designers for, right?

This kind of over-analytical testing was exactly why designer Doug Bowman made a very public break from Google earlier this year. "I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4, or 5 pixels wide and was asked to prove my case," he wrote in a post after his departure. Maybe he couldn't, but someone won a recent battle to widen the search box by a few pixels, the most major change for the homepage in quite some time.

I started to get the feeling that she selected the red shirt she was wearing that day not because she liked it, but because it provided the best contrast when placed before a giant Google homepage, luring the eye naturally towards the red characters in the logo.

Afterwards, I ducked backstage in the hopes that I could ask Mayer a little more about how the designers are brought into these high level decisions (if at all). But she quickly analyzed the amount of time it would take and said she didn't have even a moment to talk to me. Then she transformed back into a private jet and flew away.

[Photo by Wheat Wurtzburger]

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15 Comments

  • Eduardo Silva

    Alissa, this is priceless; I started to get the feeling that she selected the red shirt she was wearing that day not because she liked it, but because it provided the best contrast when placed before a giant Google homepage, luring the eye naturally towards the red characters in the logo.

  • Chad Halvorson

    You make something 1 or 2 pixels wider or narrow because it feels right, not because of data. That's just me though.

  • Turtle King

    beauty and aesthetics are just a point of view, a mind set. Some things apeal to more people because we are naturaly inclined to see things certain ways we also learn to see many things in the ways that we do.

  • YN Leung

    Impressed she was willing to speak to the group given the response she knew she would receive! Right response in a well written note from a creative type but google is on the business path for its own plan.

  • YN Leung

    Impressed she was willing to speak to the group given the response she knew she would receive! Right response in a well written note from a creative type but google is on the business path for its own plan.

  • YN Leung

    Impressed she was willing to speak to the group given the response she knew she would receive! Right response in a well written note from a creative type but google is on the business path for its own plan.

  • Michael Rowley

    Google's is a half-brained approach and looking at the comments it's apparent folks are confused that functionality is separate from design as if design were border widths and gussied up html. If Google designed the Guggenheim would it deliver art just as well? The Golden Gate bridge doesn't need to be orange, but someone got that right. Good design is logic, art, functionality, curiosity, communication, wit, love, cleverness, beauty, and truth. It's a smile in the mind, which any designer will tell you is something Google lacks. They're not even searching for it. How curious is that?

  • Michael Pratt

    I think some of you missed the point of the article. Or maybe I did, but I did not see anything in that article saying that Google should have a better design. It just explained why it did not and questioned the success of it because of that.

    I do remember (and if a lot of you think back, I think you will remember also) that I was a little turned off by Google because of the name and the way it looked. I remember the look kind of aggravating me. (not to mention for awhile every time you did a search you had to sift through pages of porn no matter what you searched for) but they got better and a search engine that was usable was necessary and it was simple. People do not really care what websites look like as long as they can navigate it.

    I am a designer who is by no means an artist. I focus on functionality and my clients are always happy, (even I go back and think I should do a better job on the design) and the website works.

  • Canonical SEO

    I agree w/ Kris... One of the things I like most about Google IS their simple design. I set up an iGoogle page... ONCE... Then quickly removed it so that I got the simple interface back.

    It's a search engine. Give me a text box where I can key in a search phrase and a search button and I am good to go! And then deliver relevant results for my search phrase. I'm sure the peeps at Yahoo! and Bing put a much bigger emphasis on design than Google instead of focusing on results, and look where it has gotten them.

    Web design firms are notorious for implementing designs a certain way because they like working with the technology because it's cool/fun or think it just looks cool without little thought for what it does for their client. Look at all of the sites out there that get suckered into rebuilding a site in Flash only to watch their rankings tank because it was done in Flash.

    IMO you can't really argue w/ Google's results... Basing design decisions on data instead of gut seems to be working for them.

    Canonical
    Learn SEO free

  • Kris Mummert

    This article is way too subjective and one-sided to be considered journalism. It reads like school yard banter. Why should Google change their design just to make a bunch of designers happy? It ain't broken, so why try to fix it?

  • Pete Campbell

    Personally, I have always respected Google's approach to Homepage design.
    If a user is interested in a homepage that offers more functionality, then iGoogle is avaliable, if not, the standard Google is there for all.

    Simplicity is a great key.

    Pete Campbell
    Creare Web Designers

  • Bruno Aziza

    Very good article. Too much is often published about the glamorous aspect of design and the fact that data shouldn't be used in a profession where creativity and improvision is perceived as king. Turns out, as this article proves, the best designers have a good sense of what their audience wants.

  • Jay Bee

    Who would question a prostitute who is good at what they do and doesn't charge you for it? do you really care that they are not really all that attractive?

  • George Lara

    This is kind of a bummer because it makes Google design seem so cold. Also when you need that much data to make a choice, you really blur the line between informed decision and risk adverse.